Will 2017 be 1931? Or 1974?

The Prime Minister made an ‘appeal to the nation’. ‘It is essential that the nation’s support of Government policy is placed beyond the shadow of a doubt … An election, of the result of which there must be no uncertainty, is also necessary to demonstrate to the whole world the determination of the British people to stand by each other in times of national difficulty’.

Sound familiar? The appeal for unity? The strident British nationalism? The confident expectation of victory? But it wasn’t Theresa May. The words were those of Ramsay MacDonald, leading a hastily assembled Government dominated by Conservatives into the 1931 election.

The Tories went on to win 471 of the 615 seats, leaving Labour with a pitiful 46 (plus six Independent Labour). It was the biggest landslide in British history. Theresa May and her advisers are no doubt dreaming of something similar, if not quite that spectacular. After all, there are some analogies. A snap election, the context of austerity politics, attacks on the living standards of the poorest and a Labour Party in Parliament at loggerheads with its own Leader.

So can we expect a re-run of 1931?

Or will it be more like the last snap election, which occurred in February 1974? Ted Heath, confronted by the miners, called an early election to establish who ruled the country – the government or the unions. But his call for national unity fell flat, as voters informed Heath that whoever ruled ‘the country’, it wasn’t him.

The Times reports the 1974 election

That election turned out to be a disaster for the Tories. They lost their majority and saw their poll percentage slide from 46% in 1970 to 38%. They also ended up with fewer seats than Labour (although with more votes!) The big gainers were third parties. In Scotland and Wales sufficient voters demanded their countries back to propel seven SNP and two Plaid MPs into Parliament. In England the beneficiaries were the Liberals, whose vote tripled to six million or 19% of the total.

So can we expect a re-run of 1974?

Although there are some similarities – economic uncertainty (caused by inflation in 1974, Brexit in 2017), a confident Scottish nationalism, political tension in northern Ireland and an unpredictable international context – there are also differences. The Labour Party was more united in 1974. The unions retained their social base. There was no far right populism and the Liberals had been riding high in the polls.

Moreover, before any Lib Dems get carried away by the analogy of 1974, their 19% vote share only gave them 14 seats. Given their refusal to countenance any talk of ‘progressive’ alliances and continuing dalliance with the Tories it could be a similar story this time around.


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